Monday, 24 October 2011

SSO Concert: Mahler's Seventh / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (21 October 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times with the title "Mahler served with joyful vehemence".

Every once in a while, a soloist cancels an appearance, but it is the rare occasion that a full work is dropped entirely from the concert. Such was the case when an indisposed Chinese mezzo-soprano Yang Jie meant that there was to be no performance of Gustav Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer this evening.

Given the recent successful symphony-only concerts by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, this loss was much less acutely felt. The Mahlerians in the audience would also point out that those songs were thematically linked with the First Symphony. Anyway, all this made for a more focused concert with just one work – the 75-minute long Seventh Symphony.

It was last performed by the SSO just eleven months ago, conducted by the Finnish guest conductor Osmo Vänskä to much acclaim. Music Director Shui Lan’s view, while adopting more brisk tempos, was no less valid. Its five movements, so disparate their conception, could sound disjointed, which is why it is still regarded the least approachable of Mahler’s ten symphonies.

The syncopated march-like procession of the first movement was tautly held together, with Fredi Sonderegger’s expertly hewn tenor horn solo setting the pace and tone. Both opulent and richly detailed, this account of tragedy on a massive scale swung between extremes in dynamics. Encompassing rustic and lush dreamlike sequences to shuddering climaxes, quintessential Mahler was being served up without apology.

This vehemence however unravelled to certain degree in the two Nachtmusik (Night Music) movements, which sounded diffuse at times. The unusual scoring of slung cow bells in the second movement seemed to add to the confusion, despite some fine playing and echoing on the French horns. It was the manic pacing and delightful realisation of the grotesque in the mysterious Scherzo that held the central movements together.

The rambling finale, a funhouse rather than the usual death and redemption spiel, was taken at breakneck speed and it worked. This unbridled expression of joy was gloriously uplifted by some of the best brass playing to be heard this year. There was to be no let up, and even when the orchestra stretched and strained for several measures near the very end, it was done purely for effect. Mahler without recourse for some exaggeration or hyperbole would be boring Mahler indeed.

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